11 May 2020
By Chris Dodd
British Rowing has stopped publishing its paper magazine. Chris Dodd, its founding editor, is gutted.
The announcement that British Rowing is closing Rowing & Regatta with immediate effect struck a pang in my heart. It is another, if inevitable, blow to rowing journalism and printed journalism, and as the founding editor of Regatta, the news pierced my soul.
The generation wedded to the printed page, of which I am a paid-up member, will raise an eyebrow at one reason cited for the throttling of R&R – that nobody reads it nowadays. That’s because, I hear myself think, the magazine no longer prints anything worth reading. Latterly, pitiful space has been allotted to feeding the hungry with obituaries, readers’ letters, rowing politics or in-depth reporting, not to mention anything so risky as gossip or diary stories.
Indeed, for several years there has been little resemblance between Regatta and Rowing & Regatta – when the former was murdered in the mid-naughties, the only thing left of it in the new publication was its name, retained to prevent renegades establishing an Independent Regatta. Regatta was founded in 1987 as a plank in the Amateur Rowing Association’s (as it then was) new registration scheme for active rowers. Hitherto the ARA was a federation of clubs and regattas.
David Lunn-Rockliffe who was running the association pretty much single-handed, phoned me out of the blue and asked: ‘If the ARA replaced ARA News with a magazine, what should it be like?’ I produced a dummy with a vaguely The New Yorker look to it, organised in five broad subject areas – rowing news, ARA news, features, technical and coaching, comment and analysis and a diary for social and safety valve. It was designed for many words on few pages (colour printing was prohibitive except for covers in those days). Its mission statement was ‘a magazine on rowing for rowers by rowers’.
David liked it and hired me on a very modest honorarium. Crucially, I wasn’t an employee of the ARA. Regatta’s roller-coaster ride began in the autumn of 1987 after the world championships in Copenhagen, where the controversial conditions for the finals produced a lively story. By the turn of the year, sports minister Colin Moynihan, FISA president Thomi Keller and IOC boss Juan Antonio Samaranch had made pledges in print about fairness at the Seoul Olympics of 1988. As light relief, the famous Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm had related his time as an Eton cox.
The Regatta team quickly got into stride. Mick Sharp, the production editor, and I both lived on the Thameslink, he in Bedford and me in Herne Hill, and we edited the mag at stops on the line, including Mick’s garden shed and the cafeteria of the British Library, with a monthly meeting at ARA in Hammersmith to wash-up the most recent and plan the next.
At the time of writing, I am half-way through the self-imposed laborious task of indexing the magazine, and the process is turning up a mountain of long forgotten stories. For 15 years Regatta sparkled with good writing, cartoons and images by dozens of contributors, many of whom were to make their mark in the wider world of journalism, several having already done so. Together we created an amazing resource of British and international rowing in words and pictures, with unrivalled coverage of Olympic and World Championship regattas, Henleys and Boat Races, witty columns under the monika ‘Blade Runner’ on training for Olympics by such as Greg Searle, James Cracknell, Guin Batten and Cath Bishop. We ran a series of ‘I rowed…’ pieces by participants in races round the world.
John Shore was a superb picture editor and specialised in the domestic scene, while Peter Spurrier contributed unrivalled international coverage, and Jaap Oepkes took original covers such as Guin Batten sculling in a bluebell wood, Peter Haining photographed sculling from underwater in Tooting Lido and in full Scots dress with his boat on top of Ben Nevis. Keith Ticehurst was an original cartoonist, sharp as a pin, as was a strip cartoon by Colin Pullan.
I don’t know where to start to give those who have never seen Regatta a flavour of it, so I’ll pick a few gems before pillaging a random selection of editions in 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics.
Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie and his sculling rival Vyacheslav Ivanov wrote about competing against one another in the Diamonds and at the chess board. Graeme Fife wrote wonderful accounts of rowing the trireme Olympias and skiffing the Thames. Jurgen Grobler’s lecture to FISA on DDR coaching was fully reported. British Olympic rowers gave personal accounts of their adventures going back to 1924. Nigel Harris, author of Sampan Pidgin, wrote about Shanghai. Oxford mutineers reminisced about their troubles in 1987.
The year 2000 was electric for British rowing, an Olympic year given a funding boost by the Lottery set up after Atlanta in 1996 where Redgrave and Pinsent won Britain’s only gold medal. Regatta revelled in the build-up and the execution on Penrith Lake in Sydney.
In March Olympic squad athletes were sharing their favourite recipes, including Ed Coode’s pasta stir-fry with the longest list of ingredients you’ve ever seen. George Ridge told Hammer Smith’s diary how he had built himself a boat from old newspapers mashed in a Kenwood mixer and voyaged from Oxford to Henley. In Ravenshoe, Queensland, a pewter mug was found and traced to Brasenose College Oxford in 1874. Thames RC announced ambitious plans to upgrade its boathouse.
April’s recipes included Miriam Batten’s fillet of salmon, Libby Henshilwood’s risotto and Alison Mowbray’s carrot and cumin bake. Cath Bishop’s Bladerunner column was about the shock of racing after winter training. A 20-page Boat Race programme included a feature on Olympian Blues and news of the boathouse that OUBC shared with University College being razed to the ground. Hammer Smith revealed that the renowned coach Mike Spracklen is a poet. Calamity Cox asked his crew: ‘Is there any reason that no one takes this arch?’
May’s issue covered final Olympic trials that put Tim Foster back in Jurgen Gobler’s four with Steve Redgrave, Matt Pinsent and James Cracknell, propelling Coode into a pair with Greg Searle. The Princess Royal opened a new rowing course in the Royal Docks. Cracknell’s Blade Runner column recounted how he and Foster beat Redgrave and Pinsent in the final trials, the only time they ever did, and their last chance to boot. Hammer Smith recounted the furies at Putney on Boat Race day when Wandsworth council officials tried to prevent Windsor Boys School and Bedford Modern School from their time-honoured custom of selling programmes to support their club funds. And there was a stir in America when the new Masters Rowing Association advertised in the Independent Rowing News with a picture of an elegant pair of female ankles raised aloft, bound by a bow and shod in six-inch heels. No comment.
June’s issue contained a comprehensive guide to Henley – who to watch, where to eat, and where to find everything from boat parts to train times. The Olympic pages included a feature on Searle and Coode and recipes for an Odd Spot Café bacon butty by Simon Dennis and groundnut stew from Guin Batten. Reviewed was the Golden Oars exhibition celebrating rowing at the Olympics from 1896 to Sydney at the River & Rowing Museum.
July’s Regatta contained the latest on Henley entries and, in case you have forgotten, comprehensive coverage of regattas, clutches of news stories, two or three pages of letters on subjects far and wide, health queries answered by qualified medics, seasonal coaching tips, news of the ARA, diary of events, etc. In short, if you read it from cover to cover you would have acquired a good grasp of what was afoot on most waterways of the sport.
Hammer Smith noted that Lisa Rutter, captain of Durham University WBC, thanked the Environment Agency for rescuing her crew after they hit Hambleden weir on Good Friday. The crew went out on Henley Reach while ignoring red warnings, and Hammer pointed out that they would have had a better run at the weir if they hadn’t hit a danger sign before arriving at it. Lisa, god bless her, then asked for donations because the club found itself short of boats, oars and funds. Bravado or stupidity, asked Hammer.
August’s magazine contained a thorough report of Henley and a 16-page preview of the Olympic regatta and the British crews – including an account of Lucerne World Cup where the Redgrave four lost in their last race before Sydney. ‘We didn’t have any gears out there. The crew that raced today is not the four that races normally,’ Redgrave told Regatta.
Miriam Batten contributed her personal journey from Barcelona 1992 to Sydney 2000. Hugh Matheson wrote about the GB eight in Montreal ‘76 and the whiff of doping from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
October brought 20 pages on Redgrave’s fifth and Pinsent’s fourth gold medal, glorious gold for the men’s eight and the first Olympic medal for GB’s women’s quad – the Batten sisters, Katherine Grainger and Gillian Lindsay. Hammer Smith reported how photographer Peter Spurrier visited the course early in the day to use the FISA Family Toilets before they were cordoned off from the press. Spurrier reported that the facility was, indeed, spacious enough for large family use.
Through my time there were occasions when relations between publisher and editor were strained. One incident involved a cover photo of Bill Mason, Imperial College’s coach, on the occasion of being awarded an honorary degree. On the cover, Bill was coaching in February wearing a black balaclava and holding a red megaphone to his lips; on Page 3 he was pictured wearing gown and mortarboard. Just after the magazine went to press, an IRA bombing atrocity took place, and when a proof of the cover arrived by fax at the ARA office the chairman, Di Ellis, knowing nothing of the Mason story, thought the cover resembled a terrorist. Without consulting the editor, she pulled the issue and announced the decision in a statement to the Press Association.
Imagine my mood when I arrived at my day job at The Guardian to be asked what this PA story about ‘my’ magazine was all about. As Mick Sharp sat in the printing house un-stapling thousands of covers while a substitute featuring the Page 3 academic dress pic was prepared, I demanded that PA issue a follow-up explaining the circumstances. However, the incident had a bitter-sweet ending. It was usual practice to send 50 advance copies to the media via first class mail, and these had gone into the post before Di pulled the cover. So, the ARA received huge publicity that it was trying to avoid.
Two other incidents concerned the Olympics. Regatta ran into the tendency for the ARA to kow-tow to the British Olympic Association and the BOA to kow-tow to the IOC.
In 2000, I commissioned a cover from the artist Annabel ‘Rock the Boat’ Eyres for the pre-Olympic edition. She produced a wonderful image in ochres and reds of Aboriginal style, centring on five rings. This was pulled when Di Ellis spied it on the fax and feared that it would breach Olympic copyright. My reaction was to print and be damned. Wouldn’t you just love to see the BOA or the IOC suing the ARA for such a brilliant work of artistic licence? But pulled it was, to my everlasting regret.
The second incident occurred after the Sydney Olympics and had a happier outcome. Under IOC rules suppliers of boats, oars and support for crews were banned from claiming Olympic connections on equipment or marketing material, which meant that a whole raft of contributors received no credit for their considerable time and effort, including Aylings, who supplied a new boat for the four at the last minute; Vespoli, who supplied an eight; and Carl Douglas, who contributed a new design of riggers, etc for the eight, to name but some.
The IOC claimed copyright on all words associated with Olympics, Olympic, Olympia etc. On this occasion GB Rowing, represented by performance director David Tanner, was on side with Regatta but extremely reluctant to sound off, fearing bad PR and the possible attention of Sue, Grabbitt and Runne. The magazine prepared a comprehensive case for sponsors and equipment suppliers to be acknowledged and cleared it with lawyers who specialise in copyright and sponsorship matters, and Tanner gave it his blessing. We printed but weren’t damned. In future, companies were able to make modest acknowledgement of their Olympic connections.
This is only a smattering of the treasures within. In the early days, the hierarchy at the ARA seldom questioned editorial policy, but as time went on support became grudging for some at the top of the association. One casualty was, ironically, our experiment with a Regatta web site. Another was the silencing of Hammer Smith’s diary, a move that unwittingly turned off the safety valve available for correcting ARA cock-ups. Editing increasingly became a chore rather than a joy, and the time came to leave or to be pushed. I’m not sure which it was, but it cost the culprit a very expensive lunch. Hammer lives on in the electronic RowingVoice magazine, itself an illustration of the conundrum that faces the press. Plenty of people are willing to read it, but virtually nobody is willing to pay for the time and effort that goes into producing it, hence its now infrequent appearances.
All that remains is to say ‘RIP Regatta’ and wish success to whatever Rowing & Regatta throws up in its new format.